In an interview with The New Yorker‘s fiction editor Deborah Treisman, Robert Chandler, one of Platonov’s translators, merits “Among Animals and Plants” as one of Soviet writer Andrey Platonov’s most important stories. Chandler credits this to the story’s working on so many levels:
As a story about family life, it is as perfect in its fusion of wit and feeling as any short story by Chekhov. The description of the forest is as fine as anything in Hardy or Lawrence. I doubt if any other writer has conveyed, as vividly as Platonov, the awe that many people must have felt on their first encounter with railways and heavy industry. And there is certainly no other writer who was able to convey, simultaneously, the beauty and hope of the Soviet dream and its terrible reality.
I enjoyed carefully looking up every nook and cranny of the story for hidden meanings crammed into it. Because of this, I think it will take me longer to part with Soul and Other Stories.
The following passage near the beginning of “Among Animals and Plants” seemed to tow the official party line:
Beneath the hunter crawled diligent ants, burdened like respectable little people with heavy loads for their households. They are vile creatures, he thought, with the character of kulaks. They spend all their lives dragging goods into their kingdom; they exploit every solitary animal, big and small, that they can dominate; they know nothing of the universal common interest and live only for their own greedy, concentrated well-being. Once, the hunter had happened to see two ants dragging an iron filing from the railway line: it seems that ants even need iron. (p.156)
As can be expected, the protagonist stamped on the reactionary kulak ants. Two pages later, he stumbles upon a hare:
He was sitting there almost humanly, rapidly chewing a blade of grass and using his tiny front paws to steady it… Most likely, he was exhausted from having to find nourishment for himself; probably his parents were dead and he was living alone, an orphan… Fyodorov didn’t kill him; the hare was too small, almost useless as food, and it would have been a shame, because the hare was only a child, yet already a true worker. Let him go on breathing. (p.158)
The treatment of the two creatures couldn’t be more different. The “counterrevolutionary” ants are crushed to the ground while, following the example of Comrade Stalin – “the kind father of all orphaned people on earth,” the protagonist picked up the “proletarian” hare and carried him home. However, the next few pages carry out an unexpected attack to the great father’s cult of personality. Fyodorov’s mother, angry at his not bringing home anything to good to eat
grabbed the hare baby, who was huddling against the oven fork beneath the stove, and began dragging him across the floor with her left hand as she beat him with her right, first on the behind and then on the ribs—it hurt more there, so venting her rage was all the sweeter. The hare trailed along the floor, suffering this calamity in silence, until the old woman came to the end of her dark strength… (p.164)
The hare’s experience pretty much sums up the fate of the Russian people in Stalin’s “utopia.” Many more of these allusions and metaphors are pointed out in the book’s Introduction. One example is pointed out in The New Yorker interview. In response to Treisman’s comment on the setting’s being “in the early nineteen-thirties, the headquarters for the construction of the White Sea Canal, the first of Stalin’s grandiose slave-labor projects,” thus providing an important subtext to the story, Chandler expounds:
One of the most remarkable features of “Among Animals and Plants” is the way Platonov contrives, while evoking the life of a genuinely heroic Soviet worker, to hint at darker tales that he is unable to tell openly. The story begins with a beautiful description of insects and beetles and little birds moving leaves and small lumps of earth about in the forest—but Platonov uses the word “perish” three times in one page, draws an unexpected parallel between the forest and the city, and places a disturbing emphasis on the fear felt by these creatures. He is evoking not only the lives of insects and beetles but also the struggles of the “canal-armyists” (as they were called at the time) to shift earth and stones with very little in the way of tools.
It’s no wonder then that most of Platonov’s works went unpublished in his life time (Stalin even reputedly wrote “scum… give him a good belting” in the margins of one of his stories). Through fiction, Platonov exposed the fact that life has not been “better” or “merrier” in Stalin’s “socialist utopia.”
“Among Plants and Animals” is available online at The New Yorker. ■